Last year, as a result of an I-9 immigration audit by the Department of Homeland Security, New York City’s Tom Cat Bakery fired 24 of its 180 employees because they were unable to verify their legal right to work in the U.S. The predictable outrage over the Trump administration’s decision to enforce U.S. immigration laws was followed by protests and boycotts.
Ignoring (or ignorant of) the obligation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to uphold the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of all individuals they hire, open border groups took to the streets last September with Tom Cat Bakery in their sights.
Daniel Gross, the founder and executive director of the non-profit Brandworkers and an organizer of the protests, told Civil Eats that “Tom Cat should serve as a model employer for what every employer in the United States should do in the Trump Era, which is adopt a set of immigrant worker protection practices.”
He added that businesses in the food industry must “choose between immigrant colleagues in the culinary industry or stand with Trump’s hateful immigration policies.”
To be clear, Tom Cat Bakery was hardly a sweat shop. It has been open for 30 years and provides workers with good pay, health insurance and gave severance pay to the illegal immigrants who lost their jobs. But that is not enough for Gross and his cohorts.
When word spread that Robert, a restaurant at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design, would continue to use products from Tom Cat Bakery, protesters redirected their rage at the establishment. While Robert stuck with Tom Cat, the bakery lost business from restaurants and eateries that punished them for simply complying the federal law.
The actions of the Queens-based Brandworkers and another protest group – Rise and Resist – are not likely to inspire lawmakers to change immigration law. And there demands will most certainly hurt workers and employers caught in the crosshairs. Recently protesters launched a “direct action” at Clyde Frazier’s to demand they drop Tom Cat, including entering the establishment screaming “No Justice, No bread.”
Michael Weinstein, the president of the Ark Restaurant Group, has not punished Tom Cat Bakery and says he is “embarrassed that other restaurateurs are caving,” to the pressure campaigns.
According to Weinstein, a loss in business will force him to reduce employees’ hours, including the 60 percent who were born outside of the U.S. The end result of these protests and boycotts will “hurt the pocketbooks of the same people they want to support,” he says.